Monday, October 06, 2008

Red, red, food.

Before there was artificial red food colouring, there was an amazing natural red food colouring. I love/hate that word natural in relation to food. I do wonder how many people over the years actually knew that the cochineal used to make pretty pink icing for their cupcakes came from a natural insect.
The cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) lives on a cactus plant in South America and Mexico, and it was once the focus of a huge and very lucrative industry. Specimens of Prickly Pear along with insect inhabitants were collected by Captain Arthur Phillip en route to settle the first batch of convicts in Australia in 1788, the intention being to break the Spanish monopoly on the trade. I don’t know how much effort went into early attempts were to cultivate the insect (another story to research!) but the prickly pear certainly thrived to pestilential proportions.
It takes about 70,000 cochineal insects to produce one pound (about 500 grams) of cochineal, and and harvesting them is very labour-intensive. It is of course more expensive than synthetic colouring – at least five times as expensive – but it is natural (but not vegan-natural).
Most of the cochineal of course was used to dye fabric, but some found its way into kitchens. Cooks have always liked to play with colours in food, and there have been some pretty scary ingredients and methods used in the past – one has only to think of the deliberate use of copper pans to make pickles nice and green, the colour coming from the toxic copper salts produced by contact with the vinegar. The use of cochineal caused a verb to be invented – scutchanele, meaning to colour with cochineal (or to simply colour red, perhaps.)
I have chosen a pie recipe for you today. It is is an out-take from my Pie Book, which is inching closer to production, thank goodness. I have no idea why it is called Scotchineal Pie, but presumably it is reddish in colour.  I think the ‘roots’ are sweet potato.
To make a Scotchinear (or Scotchineal) Pie.
Boil the Roots tendre, and peel them, and season it with Nutmeg, Cloves, Mace, Cinamon, Sugar and Salt, then lay it in your Pie, and put to it a good quantity of Marrow, Limon-peel cut small, and some slices, strew in near half a poun of Currans, candid Citron, Limon and Orange-peel, cut in thin slices, Barberries, Grapes or Gooseberries as the time of Year afford, when the pie is filled put in some Sugar and wring in the juice of two good Limons.
For the Caudle take a quart of White-wine or Sider, a little Sack and thicken it up with the Yelks of 6 Eggs, and sweeten it to your Taste; if the Wine or Cyder be no sharp enough, put in a little Vinegar.
The Pastrycooks Vade Mecum, 1705  (Anonymous)
Quotation for the Day …
I prefer Hostess fruit pies to pop-up toaster tarts because they don't require as much cooking.  Carrie Snow.

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